familiars


familiars
   Minor demons who, at Satan's command, become the servants of a human wizard or witch. It is one of the distinctive features of English *witchcraft that these spirits were very often thought to take the form of small animals, such as would be found around farms and homes; some witches claimed to have received them directly from the Devil, others from a relative or friend. One account of 1510 concerns a schoolmaster at Knares-borough (Yorkshire), who allegedly kept three spirits in the form of bumble bees and let them draw blood from his finger; he was attempting to locate treasure by magic. According to a pamphlet of 1566, two women on trial at Chelmsford (Essex), had successively owned a white spotted cat named 'Satan'; in return for a drop of blood, it had brought them possessions and caused people who had offended them to fall sick and die. The first woman had been given 'Satan' by her grandmother when she was 12 years old, with instructions to feed him on bread and milk and keep him in a basket - unusual luxury, probably, for an Elizabethan cat. In such cases, there seems no reason to doubt that the animals described did actually exist, and became the subject of gossip and suspicion.
   Many other references can be found; there were said to be familiars in the forms of *cats, dogs, *toads, *mice, rabbits, flies, or grotesque creatures of no known species. They were commonly called 'imps', a word which combined the meanings of 'child' and 'small devil'. They were thought to suck blood or milk from the witch, causing growths on her face or body which looked like nipples; by the 17th century these were generally thought to be near the genitals or anus.
   In rural tales and beliefs of later centuries, mice and toads are the familiars most commonly mentioned. Supposedly the witch sent them to bring misfortune on her enemies; in Somerset tales, witches are quoted as threatening, 'I'll toad 'ee!' It was believed that a witch could not die before passing them on to someone else, thus transferring both her power and her guilt. In anecdotes from Sussex and Essex in the 1930s, people alleged that mice had appeared at the deathbed of some local wizard or witch of a previous generation, who persuaded a reluctant relative to 'inherit' them. At West Wickham (Cambridgeshire) it was said that in the 1920s a witch tried to rid herself of her imps by putting them in the oven, but it was she, not they, who got burned; eventually they were buried with her (Simpson, 1973: 76; Maple, 1960: 246-7).
   ■ Thomas, 1971: 445-6, 524-5; Sharpe, 1996: 70-4.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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